By Chris M. Junior
For many years, she worked in the shadows of the music industry, co-writing songs with husband Gerry Goffin that became hits for The Drifters, The Monkees and The Animals, among others.
And while playing her own material proved to be inevitable, Carole King admittedly had a difficult time transitioning from songwriter to performer. Gradually, she became more comfortable in that role, and solo success would follow in 1971 with “Tapestry,” making King a star on par with the artists she wrote for in the 1960s.
King’s dormant solo career was jump-started in summer 1968. That’s when producer Lou Adler gave a copy of Laura Nyro’s debut album, “More Than a New Discovery,” to King and bassist Charles Larkey, according to the Sheila Weller book “Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon — and the Journey of a Generation.”
“We took it home and listened to it a lot,” Larkey recalled.
Nyro and King were both piano-playing native New Yorkers who made their names in the music industry as songwriters. But unlike Nyro, King wasn’t quite ready to be a true solo artist, despite charting two songs on the Billboard Hot 100 in the early 1960s. She wanted to release her first album “under the guise of a band,” according to guitarist Danny Kortchmar. So King, plus Kortchmar and Larkey, recorded as The City, releasing the Adler-produced album “Now That Everything’s Been Said” on Adler’s Ode label.
“Once the album came out, we were supposed to play a gig at the Troubadour [in West Hollywood, Calif.], and she canceled,” Kortchmar says. “She said, ‘I can’t do it. I can’t get in front of people. I’m not a performer.’ ”
Onstage insecurities aside, King wanted to continue as a recording artist — and record under her own name. In 1970, she released “Writer,” which featured instrumental support from Kortchmar, Larkey and others. But like the album by The City, “Writer” didn’t spawn any chart hits.
As 1970 unfolded, King (by this time divorced from Goffin) grew as a performer, serving as a backup musician for James Taylor, an old Kortchmar friend and former band mate. King played piano and sang on Taylor’s second album, “Sweet Baby James,” and their collaboration progressed from the studio to the stage.
Taylor was the budding star, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t willing to share the spotlight.
King recalled in 1989 for National Public Radio, “One night he said, ‘Why don’t you do one of your songs?’ I was terrified. … And in the middle of his set, he introduced me to his audience as the woman [who] had written a lot of their favorite hits, and he was going to turn the stage over to me.”
“She was very nervous about doing that,” remembers Kortchmar, “but James eased her into it. And just gradually, she got used to the idea of being onstage and realized that people loved her. I think that’s mainly it: She realized that she was going to be accepted by people and they were going to recognize her not as an absolute beginner, but as somebody who had written all of these brilliant songs.”
King recorded “Tapestry” at A&M Studios in Los Angeles, and once again, Kortchmar was part of the supporting cast, as was Larkey (who married King in September 1970, according to “Girls Like Us”). She was hands-on with the arrangements and made it clear what she wanted the other musicians to do.
“A lot of times she had a real strong idea about the bass; she would teach Charlie the parts,” Kortchmar says. “I already knew how to play rhythm guitar, and I was pretty good at it, but her teaching me about parts and about how to integrate what I was doing with the rhythm section was invaluable.”
Compared to King, “Tapestry” producer Adler was much more hands-off.
“Lou felt the best way to present her was scaled down, with a minimal amount of stuff getting in the way,” Kortchmar says. “He understood that the best thing he could do was let her songs and her piano and her singing come through.”
Released in early 1971 on Ode, “Tapestry” became King’s first hit album. It topped Billboard magazine’s pop-albums chart, and it was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America in June. The single “It’s Too Late” (backed by “I Feel the Earth Move”) entered the Billboard Hot 100 in May and reached No. 1 in June; “It’s Too Late” would go on to win the Grammy Award for Record of the Year. “So Far Away” (backed by “Smackwater Jack”) made its Hot 100 debut in August and would peak at No. 14.
The Grammy-winning “Tapestry” album has since reached the RIAA’s diamond-level status for sales of 10 million or more. Asked to explain why “Tapestry” became a hit in the first place, Kortchmar doesn’t fumble for words.
“It spoke to the way women felt about the way they wanted their lives to go,” Kortchmar says, “and it spoke to people.”